Sultan: A Franklin sled dog in London

Sled dogs, Ilulissat. Copyright: Carsten Egevang. You can see more of his beautiful images here:

“Sultan was a splendid Esquimaux dog: King of the Pack. He saved the life of one of Ross’ seamen by his sagacity. He was not suited for London!! & got me into trouble – so I sent him back.”

I’ve mentioned before that I love how John Barrow Junior annotated the Franklin search expedition paperwork that he catalogued for the Admiralty and his own Arctic papers, but this addition caught my eye like no other.

I knew about Sultan: he was the strongest and the bravest dog on Captain William Penny’s 1850-51 search for the Franklin Expedition. He was also the clumsiest and the most opinionated.

So what could have happened when this furry agent of chaos was catapulted headlong into the genteel London life of John Barrow Junior? I had to try to find out.

Sultan was one of eight young dogs who joined Captain Penny’s ships – the Lady Franklin and the Sophia – in June 1850. They were brought on board by their handler, Johan Carl Christian Petersen, a Dane who had been living with the Greenland Inuit at Upernavik for many years.

Petersen was joining as an interpreter as well as a sled team expert, and he would go on to play an important role in this and future Franklin search expeditions. But right now his hands were full. The dogs hadn’t been tried in harness, and he had a lot of training to do before the ships were frozen into their winter harbour.

Huge personality

Sultan is described as a Husky/Greenland Dog cross. He was born to be a working sled dog. All such dogs are tough and strong-willed, but Sultan seems to have had a particularly huge personality, and this caused no end of problems for Petersen.

Crew members from the Lady Franklin, Sophia and Felix play with a sled dog on the coldest day of the winter. From Journal of a Voyage in Baffin's Bay..., Peter C. Sutherland, 1852.
Crew members from the Lady Franklin, Sophia and Felix play with a sled dog in Winter Quarters, 1851. From Journal of a Voyage in Baffin’s Bay…, Peter C. Sutherland, 1852. Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain Mark

He was a clumsy dog. John Stuart, Assistant Surgeon/Third Mate of the Lady Franklin, once had to save his life after he fell into a gap in the ice.

He was an opinionated dog. Sultan once led his sled team in a sit-down strike halfway between the Lady Franklin and the HMS Assistance, forcing Robert Anstruther Goodsir, the Lady Franklin’s Surgeon, to continue his journey over the ice on foot.

Brave and smart

But Sultan was undeniably brave and smart.

The veteran whaler Donald Manson, serving as Mate of the Sophia, made a note in the Ship’s Log of how the dog had saved the life of a drunk sailor from the Felix, Sir John Ross’ little search ship, which was wintering with the Lady Franklin and the Sophia

Detail of a Ship's Log, telling the story of how the dog Sultan saved the life of a man from the Felix.
Detail of a Ship’s Log, dated 3rd January 1851, telling the story of how the dog Sultan saved the life of a man from the Felix. Copyright: The National Archives.

“Sagacity of a dog (dog “Sultan”). On the night of the New Year One of Our Sailors had been calling or paying a Visit to some of his Ship Maits, and on his way to his own Ship laid himself down on the ice.

“One of the Dogs used all means but to no effect went on board Ship Commenced fashing [bothering] one of the Sailors unusually and Seemed as if he wanted the man to follow. Which the Sailor latterly did. The Dog led him to his Ship Mait in time to Save him from the fattal efects which Must have followed.”

Peter Cormac Sutherland, the Surgeon of the Sophia, noted in his journal that the temperature that night had been -30°. 

One man and his dog

During all these dramas, Sultan became fixated on the other King of the Pack: William Penny himself. The two gruff outsiders bonded quickly. Penny adored him, and Sultan settled into a dual role: tough pack leader, and oversized lap dog.

Everything was going well until the expedition returned early, in September 1851, to a storm of controversy that would play out in the Admiralty’s Arctic Committee hearings, and in the court of public opinion.

Penny, struggling to express the gratitude he felt for John Barrow Junior’s unflinching support before, during and after this ordeal, decided that no gift short of Sultan the sled dog would possibly do.

But John Barrow Junior had probably never seen a working Husky before, and was clearly ill-equipped to deal with one, either inside his home or outside it.

When you are tired of London…

In Hunters on the Track, W. Gillies Ross mushes past this part of the story in deadpan style. He wrote: “Penny gave [the dog] to John Barrow, who kept him in London for awhile, until Sultan grew dissatisfied with the urban scene.”

I told the story to Kate Keen, a Husky trainer with extensive experience of working dogs, and asked her for her thoughts on how Sultan may have expressed his dissatisfaction.

When she stopped laughing, she said: “First, Huskies are perimeter walkers. If you confine them, they want to walk the space and immediately work out how to get out of it.

“They hate being alone: howling, chewing, scratching will ensue. A Husky can dismantle a drywall to get out, if it wants to. Digging is a risk, even in a room with carpet and floorboards.

Love and howling

“Huskies love people. They especially love poking their noses where noses shouldn’t go. Also howling at people to get attention. They are terrible food thieves, usually with things they should not have.

“Also hair: there is so much shedding at any time of the year. Mere mortals cannot understand why. There would be Husky hair in drifts in corners, and all over soft furnishings and clothing.”

Okay, I said, so this is hilarious but it must have caused so much drama for poor John Barrow Junior. Can you think of anything else that he would have had to deal with?

“Well,” she said. “Working dogs are not house-trained. So that would be fun.”

A B&W detail of a letter from William Penny to John Barrow Junior, dated 3 January 1852.
A detail of a letter from Penny to John Barrow Junior, dated 3 January 1852. Barrow has added: “Sultan was a splendid Esquimaux dog: King of the Pack. He saved the life of one of Ross’ seamen by his sagacity. He was not suited for London!! & got me into trouble – so I sent him back.” Copyright: The British Library

So back Sultan went, back to Penny and to Aberdeen. Writing to John Barrow on the 3rd of January 1852, Penny said:

“Sultan has come to hand in much better condition than when he left. I am only sorry that you have had so much trouble with him, had I only thought I might early have known that he would not do in London.”

Ultimately, the story of Sultan’s London vacation is that of the unlikely life-long friendship between a dog-rough whaler and the privileged son of the late Sir John Barrow Bart, the former Second Secretary of the Admiralty who had sent the Franklin Expedition off in 1845 to find a North-West Passage.

No airs and graces

Frances J. Woodward noted in 1953 that “there were no airs and graces about Penny. He had gone to sea at the age of 12 and had had no time to cultivate them“.

Words tripped Penny up whenever he tried to use them. But he didn’t need words when he chose to give Sultan as a gift. He loved the dog.

With this act, William Penny – that “rough, unculturated but kind-hearted sailor” – was able to express how he felt without fear of words letting him down.

And the fact that John Barrow Junior chose to hang a portrait of William Penny in almost every room of his house – the house that Sultan had most likely tried to destroy?

Well, that also speaks louder than words.

An engraving of Arctic sled dogs at rest.


The Log of the Lady Franklin – The National Archives, ADM 55/85
The Log of the Sophia – The National Archives, ADM 55/127
Sutherland, Peter C., – Journal of a Voyage to Baffin’s Bay, Vol 2
Barr, William – “The Use of Dog Sledges during the British Search for the Missing Franklin
Expedition in the North American Arctic Islands, 1848 – 59”,
Arctic, 2009

Woodward, F. J. – “William Penny, 1809–92”, Polar Record. Cambridge University Press, 1953
Ross, W. Gillies – Hunters on the Track, 2019

John Barrow Junior Bequest – The British Library
William Penny archive –  Scott Polar Research Institute

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